- Echoes from a Distant Frontier: The Brown Sisters' Correspondence from Antebellum Florida
Over the last ten years, James M. Denham has been the hardest-working historian of Florida. He has authored and coauthored numerous articles and books on the nineteenth-century history of this fascinating, bizarre, and understudied state. All of his work is of high quality, including A Rogue's Paradise (1997), his monograph on crime and punishment in Florida during the nineteenth century—perhaps the best single-state study of violence and lawbreaking yet written. Given the nature of Florida—in the nineteenth century only, of course—that volume is necessarily one of the more comprehensive histories of the state as well. This reviewer [End Page 323] knows less about Keith L. Huneycutt, a professor of English at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, where Denham also teaches history. Not only the association, but also the evidence of this text recommends him. For Echoes from a Distant Frontier is a well-edited and interesting collection of letters from a loquacious set of correspondents, and a story whose cliffhangers and tragedies might move a jaded reader.
The Brown sisters, Corinna and Ellen, moved from New England to Florida in 1835. The daughters of a New Hampshire privateer captain and his widow, they were left after the death of both parents with little more than their education. Their brother Mannevillette Brown, an aspiring painter, moved to Ithaca, New York, then spent two decades in Europe, and finally returned to live in Utica, New York. Corinna and Ellen chose instead to move to East Florida to live with their aunt. There they would encounter the frontier society of the edge of plantation expansion. Letters to Mannevillette detail both their outsiders' perspective on this culture and their attempts to acclimate to its values. Within a few years, and without apparent effort, they became proslavery southerners.
Another story coursing beneath the sisters' letters, however, tells of the opposition of others to the forces of conquest with which the sisters were aligned. Where sugar and cotton plantations crept south into the Florida peninsula, they and other white migrants encountered determined resistance to American expansion in the form of the Second Seminole War (1835–1842). Each sister married a man who served in that long conflict. As the letters and the years roll on, they tell of the sisters' attempts to nurture their families among movement, economic troubles, wars and rumors of wars, and eventually, family heartbreaks that at times suffused their correspondence with quiet desperation.
Denham and Huneycutt have edited the collection of letters, which now rests in the archives of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, with a skillful and light hand. They set each chapter in the context of the sisters' lives, rapidly sketching their many moves and summarizing some of the letters. The editors provide, from their wealth of knowledge about Florida history, numerous contextual footnotes about the host of characters who move through the lives of Corinna and Ellen. One chilling plot woven through the sisters' lives is their treatment of enslaved African Americans, who appear primarily in the role of investments and emergency funds. From time to time husbands and aunts travel to New Orleans or Charleston to purchase a woman or man. Then, as the need arises, the sisters or their spouses sell away the same men, [End Page 324] women, and children as readily and with as little evident compunction as one might cash in a certificate of deposit today. As Walter Johnson (Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market ) and others have argued, to oppose slaveholding and capitalism makes little sense. In the everyday life of the expanding plantation South, white people bought and sold black people in the quest to create, preserve, and recreate themselves and their hopes for themselves through the entrepreneurial opportunities and commodified dreams of the market.
Indeed, one could see the Brown sisters...